Women’s Basketball Photography: A Story I’ve Wanted to Tell for Years

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There are probably a lot of different types of photography that any one photographer might not like.

For me personally, one type of photography that would have definitely been included on my short list of what I don’t like is baseline basketball photography of the type that is seen in major newspapers and sports magazines all over the country. I don’t want to get into knocking anyone’s work. But the images that I’d always seen were to me incredibly boring and I thought more than once that if I had to do that job, night in and night out, I would rather not be a photographer at all.

So when the opportunity came up for me to shoot women’s basketball as a baseline photographer, I jumped on it. Of course! That’s me. A proven hypocrite once more.

First, I loved women’s basketball at the time of the offer. And I still do love it but probably nothing like those early days before I was involved with the hard work of content creation around the sport and not just sitting around ruminating about it. And, of course, I love photography.

Beyond the technical challenges, which I instinctively went at with the idea of using the fastest and best Nikon lenses, there was a complete blank drawn in my mind about what exactly I should be shooting at these basketball games. And yes, even now it sounds like an easy question to answer. You shoot the action, dummy.

Turns out though, that’s about as much of an answer as it would be to tell an out of shape photographer to go out on the floor and just play winning basketball with and against these great talented athletes on the court.

Just do it! Right? 

Oh sure, it’s JUST that easy.

An added problem is that I wanted to be really good at this and immediately. I put a ton of pressure on myself right from the start. That pressure and the distractions of trying to take good photographs completely took me away from what was happening in terms of the actual basketball games for years.

Who were the great players? How good was the team? What defense is that? All of that was instantly of no interest to me whatsoever. All I wanted to do and all I could think about was being good at what I was there to do.

I knew, KNEW, that the pictures I took would live maybe for a very long time on the internet with MY name attached to them. That was very scary for me. So for years into the endeavor it was completely normal for me not to even know the score of a game I was sitting four feet away from.

All I could think about was that I had to keep looking for and shooting great shots or I would end up with people seeing subpar work with my name on it and those people thinking, meh, this guy isn’t very good. lol.

So I had this friend who was an editor at the New York Times and I asked her what the heck was I supposed to shoot at the first contest I was credentialed to attend, an NCAA women’s game at Pepperdine University between the Pepperdine Waves and one of the always powerful teams from Gonzaga.

My friend sent me a bunch of sports images. And she asked me a question. What do all these pictures have in common?

I looked at the shots and I have to admit, I immediately got it. They were each and every one taken at the most extreme instant of competition. Two players diving for a ball or jumping for a rebound. Arms and bodies absolutely extended to the extreme range of what the human anatomy will allow..

Okay. I had something to shoot for. Thank you, Miss New York Times.

But that wasn’t enough. So I had to ask myself, what do I like to photograph?

What is it that I watch or look for when I’m watching sports? What matters to ME? What do I find interesting about sports?

Well that was kind of an easy answer to come up with as well. I like communication, both demonstrative and out front for all the world to see, but also subtle and psychological. Silent communication. Involuntary tells that flash across people’s faces. Things that might not even be there but are there for me, things that I think I see and that I think have meaning. Things that I can point a camera at and photograph as proof or evidence that they are there.

Okay. Now I had something to go on.

So I showed up at Pepperdine in Malibu. I was nervous. I thought a) they wouldn’t let me in the front door, and b) security and everyone in the place would be watching me for one false un-Sports Illustrated-like move so that they could expel me from their midst and get on with their big-time college basketball game.

It’s an unusual arena. The court is open on one end where the lobby actually is and the small concession stand etc. You walk past all of that to either immediately grab a seat on the near baseline or to walk around to the far baseline. I figured the further I could get myself into the place the harder it would be to get me out of there so I began to walk around the court to get to the other side.

As I said, I came to this a) hating baseline basketball photography anyway and wanting to do something different, and b) somehow holding in my mind the desire to photograph the things that I see and are interested in in both basketball and life and that is communication of thought either from one person to another or contained in the faces of those I photograph.

(Whether the latter is really there or not is for me kind of not up for debate. If I see it, I think I can photograph it. If it’s still there then I think I have photographed it. As the cliche goes, your mileage may vary.)

Anyway. But certainly player-to-player communication was what I was most looking for in shooting women’s basketball. Not the standard action shots but something different.

Well, as I was walking around to the baseline where I’d chosen to make my stand against security and school officials should they get wind of my lack of baseline gravitas I SAW a shot. Just like that. Before I could even get to my spot. I saw my whole purpose for being there come into a frame in my mind right from the sideline.

So I lifted my camera and snapped the following shot. That’s my first ever photograph of a women’s or anyone else’s basketball game.

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I’d barely broken stride and I looked at that picture as I continued to walk to my spot. I probably thought something like, thank you and good night, ladies and gentlemen. I don’t remember. But there it is. 24 for the home team is calling for the ball and 22 is thinking about accommodating her in the face of a daunting Gonzaga defense. There is a micro basketball story captured in one image.

I would have to admit that in the many subsequent years of taking pictures at women’s games, mostly WNBA games, I don’t think I ever did anything that I could call ‘better’ than what I did on that first night. Technically maybe. But the truth is the more I shot and the better the images may have gotten technically, the farther away I got from what I’d initially set out to do in shooting women’s basketball. So there’s that.

Anyway. Here are a few shots from that night. All I can recover in these modern days of not having an optical drive on my Macs. ;-)

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New York Times: Photography as a Balm for Mental Illness

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donald barnat – 50lux.com

Seems that maybe there is, in this eye-opening piece on NYTimes.com, a blurring of the lines between what is thought of as mental illness and what might be considered emotional or other behavioral problems and issues. But nevertheless I’m glad they cast a wide enough net to include many of us and I’m thinking this might be a very interesting ongoing subject to discuss here or amongst any group of creative people.

(I didn’t feel comfortable using an image belonging to one of the photographers profiled in this article without permission so I used one of mine. It is in no way a commentary on nor are the subjects pictured in any way associated with this article.)

To the casual observer, Danielle Hark was living an enviable life, with a devoted husband, a new baby and work she enjoyed as a freelance photo editor. But she was so immobilized by depression that she could barely get out of bed. Her emotional state could not be explained in postpartum terms — she had suffered from debilitating depression for most of her life, and ultimately received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder when her daughter was a year old.

via Photography as a Balm for Mental Illness – NYTimes.com.